End of The Road is a festival that knows itself well. Where an increasingly packed-out festival season calendar has led some of the big hitters to existential crises, End of the Road’s thirteenth edition looked more secure than ever.
Topping the bill was a perfect trio for the Dorset festival with St Vincent, Vampire Weekend and Feist headlining across the weekend. Each brought a different energy to the rolling hills of Larmer Tree Gardens. Annie Clark and co bristled with politically charged bangers, Vampire Weekend returned to the UK for the first time in four years with a frantic tour of their back catalogue, though sadly, no new music while Feist closed the fest with a simultaneously haunting and light-hearted set that spanned her more than a decade-long career.
However, despite the indie-star power leading the line-up, the real star of End of The Road was the politics. Festivals have always been fertile breeding ground for left-wing ideals, yet at this year’s End of The Road, ideas of openness and tolerance were centre stage wherever you looked.
Friday saw the always radical Fat White Family bring a dose of anarcho-communist fun to the main stage, followed by St Vincent’s forward-looking social commentary and masterful satire of macho rock ‘n’ roll. Earlier in the day, rising singer-songwriter, Nilufer Yanya, who spends her free time volunteering in Greek refugee camps, lit up the Big Top.
On Saturday, Stealing Sheep shook the Garden stage awake with a rousing tribute to the suffragettes, featuring an all-female drumline that paraded around the festival grounds, uprooting various middle-aged men and their camping chairs. Over on the main stage, Shame was touted as the day’s main punk draw however for all the shirtless crowd surfing and shouted political statements, their set felt markedly less radical than the act they had followed.
If you’ve never seen Omar Suleyman live before then it’s difficult to explain just how revolutionary it feels for Syrian wedding singer to amass one of the largest crowds of the day at a predominantly white middle-class festival in Dorset. Exiled in Turkey he’s found a global audience with his unique take on the traditional music of his home in Northern Syria. On stage, he sings in Arabic over a mix of elaborate keyboard solos, samples of Syrian instruments and club-worthy percussion. Now something of a cult hero, his set at the End of The Road prompted more dancing than any other act over the weekend.
Yet it was Sunday evening that proved the most politically charged moment of the weekend, Danish punks Iceage prowled the stage in the Big Top, delivering poetic critiques over bruising instrumentals, frontman Elias Rønnenfelt calling to mind Morrissey in his heyday. Later that same night, punks of the moment IDLES would thank the festival organisers for allowing them to share a stage with Rønnenfelt and co. in the midst of the heaviest set Larmer Tree Gardens had seen all weekend. Summoning mosh pits at End of The Road is no easy feat, but the Bristolian five-piece made it look it easy. By the time their set was done, half the band was in the crowd, and several members of the crowd were on stage.
While both IDLES and Iceage are in possession of plenty of punk credentials, the most urgent set of Sunday, and the whole weekend, came from Ezra Furman. Dedicating songs to refugees and transwomen in a set that highlighted the injustices facing both groups, he won over an initially lukewarm crowd to receive one of the best receptions of the festival, helped along by a touching cover of Smashing Pumpkins’ classic ‘Tonight Tonight.’
Of course, there were plenty of less woke highlights at End of The Road as well. Honourable mentions go to the sheer fun of Vampire Weekend’s headline slot and their dad-pleasing cover of Peter Gabriel’s ‘Salisbury Hill’, as well as to DUDS’ outrageously energetic secret show in the Tipi at around 1 AM on Sunday. With plenty of family-friendly activities around the site as well as an excellently curated cinema schedule, End of The Road remains of the most civilised festivals in the country; that’s no doubt part of its appeal to the various middle-aged couples and families that attend. However, it’s real strength is its focus on progressive music and a gentle radicalness that offers hope in darkening political times.